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  • Vittoria Eugenia Lombardi

The ability to imagine

The ability to imagine

by Vittoria Lombardi

published in "Intimate Bridges. Towards an intercultural participatory model in performing arts"

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The "self-relation" of citizens has become the object of public welfare management. Increasingly, the capacity to improve the welfare society is attributed to citizens and to the activation of their resources (...): firstly, the way in which citizens become potentialities; secondly, the way in which systems of function increasingly depend on citizens; thirdly, the way in which personal responsibility is assigned a new form and function. (....) Indeed we are seeing the development of new technologies of governance directed at citizens and designed to meet this challenge. Among these technologies we found the 'Shared Perspective' approach, which seeks to enable citizens to 'own' the problem, while allowing professionals to use their skills to shape it. At the same time, intervention plans are increasingly based on dialogue, so that they can be shared between the welfare administration and citizens."

[ Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen, "Public Management in Transition : The Orchestration of Potentiality."] * translated by the author


In the chapter "Citizens as a resource" of the book "Public Management in Transition : The Orchestration of Potentiality", Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen, professor of Political Management at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy at The Copenhagen Business School, summarises, through the history of the concept of the citizen as a legal subject, the relationship between the individual and the State in the management of the "public goods": responsibilities, roles, rights and duties.

What Andersen sustains and highlights in his analysis, albeit through examples linked to the Danish context, is the systemic emergence and consolidation at European level of a new interpretation of the 'citizen' observed as a resource and a potential.

A citizen, therefore, far from the expectations aimed at that legal subject considered passive in the use of social services, typical of certain welfare models where the State played the role of "provider", but rather a citizen who is self-disciplined with respect to a specific space of action and is active in the exercise of his own freedom and in the self-analysis of his own needs.

Citizens are observed as free and sovereign - Andersen maintains - only when they use their freedom to benefit the community by assuming certain responsibilities.

With the emergence of welfare models that have progressively transformed the State into an entity that acts mainly as a supervisor of other subjects that complement or even replace it in the provision of social services, this new responsibility and awareness of the citizen is seen as a key point for initiating that paradigmatic change that in its turn re-responsibilises the institutions in generating new models of relations with people and territories: greater proximity and less generalisation of the social services offered and greater protagonism of the users.

Therefore, the role of the citizen in acting out his legal subjectivity, his freedom of self-determination as a member of a community, his relationship with the "delegation" is changing: a critical role potentially capable of counteracting the negative consequences of a process of progressive privatisation of welfare services observed in recent decades and the inadequacies of bureaucratic systems that are often too slow and rigid to respond adequately to the needs and requirements of communities in continuous transformation and progressive change.

Therefore, the role of the "audience" in acquiring awareness of its own needs and in the dialogue with those who are in charge of satisfying those needs must change. (The involvement of users in the design of welfare services is increasingly observable, from urban planning to health care, not always with effective results and with tools for listening and mapping of needs still to be perfected, but certainly is the expression of a transversal desire for changing).


In this analysis by Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen, which highlights the transformation of the relationship between citizens and public institutions, we can find many analogies with the performing arts sector. As a matter of fact, if each system of functions into which we can subdivide our social model - educational, political, juridical, and among them the artistic one - operates with its own languages and rules through the distinction of two different type of roles, performance and audience roles, it is easy to draw lines of contiguity between two not too distant worlds.

In fact, the world of performance and cultural production has for years been undergoing a tension towards rethinking the role of the spectator, similar to that which is affecting public administrations and welfare bodies, and which is acting at all levels of the production structure and the creative process.


"Playwrights and directors would like the audience to see this and hear that, to understand something in particular and to draw precise conclusions. This is the logic of the pedagogue of stupidity, the logic of direct and uniform transmission: there is something on one side - a form of knowledge, a capacity, an energy contained in a body or mind - that has to pass to the other. What the student has to learn is what the professor teaches him. What the spectator must see is what the director shows him. What he has to feel is the energy he communicates. To this identity of cause and effect, which is at the heart of the logic of stupidity, emancipation contrasts their dissociation. This is the meaning of the paradox of the ignorant teacher: from him the pupil learns something that the teacher does not know either. He learns it as a result of a mastery that forces him to search and verify this search".

["The emancipated spectator" Jacques Rancière]. * translated by the author


It is enough to quote Jacques Rancière's "The Emancipated Spectator"; the attention paid to the themes of audience engagement and audience development at all institutional levels of cultural policies (European, national, local); the spread of participatory art and public art practices even in environments historically characterised by more conservative cultural offers and less open to the contemporary; the emergence of intersectoral funding programmes that increasingly bring art into dialogue with the themes of public health, the activation of citizenship, and care, associating artists and cultural professionals alongside other skills and figures; the direct involvement of those subjects that are "talked about" through work of arts in order to question "representation" as a colonial practice and the deprivation of narrative subjectivity.

An analogy, therefore, that is certainly not accidental, but which manifests as a symptom a transversal urgency that is shaking European societies today: what models of coexistence and response to social needs do we want and can we give ourselves today in discontinuity with previous models that are perhaps outdated or incapable of responding to current complexities? What is the role of each of us in speaking out and participating in the 'common good'? What does "participation" mean and what responsibilities and rights does it entail?


"Emancipation begins when we challenge the opposition between looking and acting; when we understand that the evidences that structure the relations between saying, seeing and doing belong in turn to the structure of domination and subjection. It begins when we understand that looking is also an action that confirms or transforms this distribution of positions. The spectator also acts. (...) The separation between the stage and the stalls will have to be overcome (...): placing the audience on the stage and the artists in the stalls, eliminating the difference between one and the other, moving the performance to other places, identifying it with a re-appropriation of the street, the city or life. It is undeniable that this attempt to upset the distribution of seats has enriched the theatrical performance. But the redistribution of seats is one thing, and the need for theatre to bring together a community in order to put an end to the spectacle as a separation is quite another. The first implies the invention of new intellectual adventures, the second a new form of assigning bodies to the right place to be, which in this case is that of their communion."

["The emancipated spectator" Jacques Rancière]. * translated by the author


If we follow this comparative approach, it is undeniable that participatory art, precisely because of the mechanisms of rupture thanks to which it places the public at the centre of the performative discourse, is a socio-cultural practice that can have a wide-ranging impact in helping citizens to live and exercise their active and critical role in other areas of their public and private lives. At the same time, it can teach institutions new ways of relating to and involving the public.

Moreover, participatory art practices increasingly touch on themes that simulate or metaphorically lead the citizen back to issues of public management: the city, public space, the ability to be a narrative protagonist of one's own environment and experience.

It is therefore not an isolated process, but one that is influenced by and capable of influencing similar processes in other areas of common life, so that the citizen, the person, can play a leading role in relation to his or her own needs: "allowing citizens to own the problem", to be aware of it and, I would add, for institutions to develop skills for dialogue with citizens.

I will cite two examples among many that can demonstrate this intersection of aims.

The decennal experience of the italian performing art company Effetto Larsen within participatory projects is the first one. Among the company's project for instance Cu'N'Fu - L'arte di immaginare il futuro is a civic innovation project based on the participatory art methods developed by the artistic company Effetto Larsen in previous formats and installations: the emotional mapping of territories from the inhabitants point of view; an immersive questionnaire to investigate the relationship between identity and places of belonging; a game that asks participants to imagine a society from the scratch. Cu'N'Fu is a process, a new method of investigation and involvement of citizenship in decision-making processes. It addresses institutions and communities in order to investigate with them new bottom-up planning devices and innovative ways to involve the inhabitants in expressing their voice and needs on issues of civic interest and management of the common good. Effetto Larsen is working on this project in close connection with decion makers, citizens, local associations.

Another significant example about the social and political impacts of an artistic project is Ti Voglio Un Bene Pubblico, developped by the artist and choreographer Elisabetta Consonni. TVUBP is a urban game involving two teams of citizens on a path that leads them to playfully confront the infrastructures that divide public space: walls, gates and nets. Elements to which our eyes often pay no attention but which nevertheless condition the accessibility of public space in our cities, the movements and paths of our bodies along the line of discontinuity between public and private places. The project therefore allows us to inhabit space through an expanded choreography that brings bodies back into public space (the concept of “spatial justice” investigated by Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos), while at the same time acting as a spotlight on the power devices that the architecture of our territories incorporates and dictates, the way our movements are regulated by the urban structure of our neighbourhoods.

Both projects, which certainly develop according to the language and methods of artistic investigation, are permeated by other perspectives (sociological, historical) and open up their potential beyond the circumscribed experience they propose.

The risk that participatory practices may have a "top down" component is what often generates reticence towards this language, a defence of the boundary that separates art as an aesthetically recognisable "disruptive" product or gesture, from projects dictated by "normative" needs of cultural policies aimed at mitigating conflict rather than exploring it. As Farooq Chaudhry said: "Diversity is complex, culture is confirmative, and art is disruptive" (quoted in "Should our funds for the arts pay for cultural democracy?" by Nan van Houte).

This risk is certainly real, just as it is real, always proceeding by intersectorial parallels, that giving citizens a leading role in decision-making processes and in the design of welfare services entails a hyper-responsibility of the individual in the face of a retreat of the institutions from their functions of care and management of the common good.

However, I believe that these doubts can be answered easily if we focus and questions the intentions of the artists and of those who follow as cultural mediators the artistic process rather than a language and a method.

Participatory art represents a pattern of rupture that innovatively crosses the concepts of participation and self-determination and questions the categories of power, including that of the artist who somehow acts here through his/her progressive removal of his/her presence from the centre of the "scene".

Participatory art is a language that in giving an active role to the audience experiments and can experiment with new forms of citizenship and democracy, new models of living collectively.


"The involvement of citizens in the production and implementation of welfare has become an incontrovertible truth because it is believed that a better use of citizens as resources can create a better welfare. When the citizen is described as a potentiality, the limit of governance is not only the capacity of citizens to govern themselves, but also their capacity to self-explore and discover how new possibilities for development and self-fulfilment are inherent in alternative "manifestations" of the self.


And what better than art can teach the ability to imagine?



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